Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Shahnameh-related Idioms and Proverbs

Shahnameh scenes at Moshir Al Mamalek Hotel Garden, Yazd

The Shāhnāmeh, or Book of Kings, is perhaps the most notable piece of Persian literature. Ferdowsi is credited with having saved the Persian language with this masterpiece because not a single word with Arabic roots was used in it. Persian names are still taken from the Shahnameh. In fact, for me, there are three main categories of Iranian names: Islamic, Shahnameh, and Other. Everyone has their favorite story and hero, and many of the themes can still be seen today in books and movies- Simorgh is one such example. Not knowing the stories opens room for teasing. I had an Afghan co-worker who had given another Afghan co-worker of ours the nickname Sultan Mahmoud because he had never read the Shahnameh (more about that below.) In Iran you'll find paintings depicting the most famous scenes. Two of the hotel restaurants I went to in Yazd were decorated with these. The Shahnameh is not only culturally significant, but it also plays a role in some proverbs.

Siyavash and the Fire, Safayieh Hotel, Yazd

The first one is شاهنامه آخرش خوش است, Shāhnāmeh ākharesh khoshe, The end of the Shahnameh is pleasant, or Praise a fair day at night. This is where our friend Sultan Mahmoud from above comes in. It's said that Sultan Mahmoud of Ghazni, Afghanistan had promised Ferdowsi 60,000 pieces of gold (one for every couplet) to finish the Shahnameh. When it was done, however, he showed disinterest and sent silver instead, prompting Ferdowsi to add the closing verses:

Thirty years of care,
urged on by royal promise, did I bear,
And now, deceived and scorned, the aged bard
is basely cheated of his pledged reward.

(Read the full ending here.) Having been shamed by Ferdowsi, Sultan Mahmoud sent the gold that he had originally promised, but as his men entered the gates of Tus, they saw a funeral procession and realized they had arrived too late. The gold was given to his daughter instead, but she rejected it. (Now you know why my Afghan co-worker called the other Sultan Mahmoud.)

A similar proverb to this is جوجه را آخر پاییز می شمرند, jujeh rā ākhare pāeez mishmorand, Chickens are counted at the end of fall, or don't count your chickens before they hatch. In this clip from the movie Ātash Bas, the friend combines these two proverbs into Shāhnāmeh rā ākhare pāeez mishmorand, The Shahnameh is counted at the end of fall. 

One of the most well-known stories, and a favorite of Hassan in The Kite Runner, is Rostam and Sohrāb. In a nutshell, Rostam is the strongest hero and nobody dares fight him. He leaves Tahmina before she bears him a son, Sohrāb, but before he leaves, he gives her an armband to place on the child if it is a boy. Years later, Rostam and Sohrab come face-to-face on the battleground. Sohrab knows his father's name, but neither one knows the other's identity as they are fighting. Rostam finally stabs Sohrab in the heart, and it's only after this that he sees the armband and realizes what he has done. Tahmina arrives at the battlefield and finds a weeping Rostam with Sohrab in his arms. It's from this story that we get نوشدارو بعد از مرگ سهراب, nushdāru bad az marge Sohrāb, Medicine comes after the death of Sohrab, or While men go after the leech, the body is buried. 

Just a little anecdote to this- my father's name is Sohrab. He went on an interview when he first came to the U.S., and when the interviewer came out, he said, "I know you, and I know your father." My dad, of course, knew this was impossible and had no idea what he was talking about. He continued, "But I don't remember if you killed your father or your father killed you." My dad was impressed that he knew the story, but he said the stunned looks on the faces of the Americans waiting for their interview was priceless. 

Rostam and Esfandiyar, Hotel Safayieh, Yazd

The final idiom is related to Rostam and is simply known as هفت خوان رستم haft khāne Rostam, the seven labors of Rostam. After Kay Kavus's army is captured by the Div, demons, Rostam passes through seven labors in order to liberate them. In this clip from Shahgoosh, the mother and daughter go to the police station, but before they enter, they encounter a few people: first is the soldier who welcomes them, then the soldier who offers them candy, and finally the women who have to search their bags. The mother, annoyed that she can't get on with her business, finally declares, haft khāne Rostam rā andākhtin?, What is this, the seven labors of Rostam? 

There is another example of this in the movie To Va Man. The son, Mohammad Reza Golzar, has brought his fiancee home to meet the family, but they don't like her and are giving her a hard time. The mother falls sick, and the doctor says it's best if the daughter or daughter-in-law takes care of her. The best friend says that there is no daughter-in-law yet, but if the fiancee can pass through haft khāne Rostam, she might be. 

There you have it. Clearly the Shahnameh is a significant part of our culture. Check out this beautifully illustrated version of the Shahnameh, or for a more in-depth read, try the Dick Davis translation

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